Conversation with the Artist: Julie K. Gray
Meet the Artist
Julie K. Gray (she/her/hers) grew up in New Hampshire but has been happy to call Maine her home since 2007. She earned her BFA in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design in 2005 and has since earned her MFA in Studio Art from Maine College of Art in 2012. She works primarily in photography, sculpture (papier-mache and beaded works), and needlepoint and has exhibited widely in New England (ME, MA, NH, RI), NYC, OH, IL, FL, TX, NC, AZ, NJ and Canada. She wears many hats in addition to that of an artist, as she works as a wedding photographer, a standardized patient (medical actor), Reiki practitioner and she's also an ordained Spiritualist Minister (and psychic medium).
Who are you, what do you do, and why do you do it?
After experiencing a near-death incident in 2009, I find that much of my artwork engages motifs of mortality, mourning culture, and the psychological space of “limbo” thematically. In order to address these intangible subjects, I have come to use symbolic means, humor, cultural signposts and varied media (primarily papier-mâché, beading, photography, needlepoint and childhood craft) to become more accessible to the audience, and to perhaps open up dialog about mortality and spiritual inquiry—subjects typically deemed “taboo” in contemporary North American society. During the COVID-19 era, I do feel that mortality and loss have become a greater part of our conversations; however, there is still definite unease when speaking about illness, the body after death, and the continuity (or not) of our soul. Whether a person believes that we return to the dust from which we came, go on a journey to Heaven or Hell, or our souls continue in a similar trajectory (simply leaving our bodies behind), this is absolutely a critical time to have these conversations.
Beaded Skull, 2021. 5x8.5x6.5 inches. Plastic and glass beads with wax on plastic skull.
Beaded Hand, 2021. 9x3.5x3 inches. Plastic and glass beads with wax on mannequin hand.
As the wearer of many hats, I find that I'm consistently working on at least three series of work simultaneously. For example, I am currently working on a series of photographic self-portraits where I depict myself in ghost-shroud. Primarily these photographs are taken with medium format black and white film and processed and printed with traditional darkroom techniques by myself; however there are some digital images where I can play with in-camera double-exposure to make myself appear more ghost-like. Secondly, I'm working on a series of beaded objects pertaining to mortality (pill bottles, tombstones, food, etc.) in a style similar to that of the Huichol people, coating the surface of the object in wax and placing the beads into the wax. Lastly, I'm also currently working on a series of medium-format film photographs of Spiritualist camps and communities, which is more documentary in nature.
Visiting Hour (Installation Photograph), 2021. Varied dimensions. Beaded objects, embroidery, papier-mache, clay, acrylic.
Beaded Coffee Cup (from Visiting Hour installation), 2021. Approx. 5x3x3 inches. Glass and plastic beads, wax and plaster of paris on cup.
Beaded Hot Tamales (from Visiting Hour installation), 2021. Approx. 3x6x.5 inches. Glass beads with wax on candy box.
What are your current inspirations and influences?
Currently my primary influences are Spiritualism, memento mori, Huichol beadwork, the photography of William Mumler, the paintings of Hyman Bloom, Hilma af Klint, Georgiana Houghton and Emma Kunz, and the sculpture of Liza Lou and Charles LeDray.
Beaded Pill Bottles, 2022. Varied dimensions. Glass and plastic beads, wax and felt on pill bottles.
If you were to pick a beloved piece from your collections and tell its story, what would it say?
If I were to pick a piece from my works and tell its story, I'd absolutely want to speak about Beaded Torso. I began this life-size sculpture early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, May 2020. My work had greatly been about issues surrounding mortality already, but at this point, I really started to think about the body as a subject in and of itself...contemplating the micro and macro effects of the pandemic and the micro/macro relationships within the human body as well. It made perfect sense to me that this piece should be inspired by the galactic...and the microscopic. Using a base of black and "oil-slick" beads and adorned with geometric (hexagonal) shapes, there lies the mysteries within the cosmos, and the mysteries within the petri dish.
Beaded Torso, 2020. Approx. 25x12x9 inches. Glass, plastic and stone beads with wax on mannequin torso.
Do you have any upcoming projects, concepts, and new work we should look out for?
Currently I'm working on a life-size tombstone that will be beaded in entirety. The base is made of insulation board that has been carved and painted with masonry paint. Covered in "moss" and with traditional tombstone symbolism, I hope that this piece will be the first in a small series of three to five tombstones. I'll also be continuing an ongoing series of film photography about Spiritualist camps, highlighting Lily Dale (NY) and Camp Etna and Temple Heights (both in ME).
Beaded Tombstone (work in progress). Glass, plastic and stone beads with wax on insulation board.
Thank you Julie for sharing your incredible work with us and for being a pioneer in our local Maine art community! To see more of Julie's work, you can visit her website here, or find her on Instagram.
Museum of Beadwork, April 26, 2022.
- Heather Kahn